By Russ Cassady
ROBINSON CREEK — The two men vying for the 92nd District state House seat in next month’s general election drew stark differences between each other during an issues forum hosted Monday night by the Appalachian News-Express.
Republican challenger John Blanton and Democratic incumbent John Short spoke to voters at the event held at Valley Elementary School and discussed topics as wide-ranging as the current status of the state’s pension funds to the need for economic development in Eastern Kentucky.
Blanton, a retired Kentucky State Police major, and Short, owner of a gun store in Hindman, focused much of their discussion on the economic issues facing the 92nd District, which includes Magoffin, Knott and a portion of Pike County.
Jobs and economy
Blanton said jobs and the economy are the biggest issues faced by the voters in the 92nd District.
“We’ve got to work to create economic development,” he said. “We’ve got to work to reel in the Obama/Clinton administration EPA overreach and we’ve got to put our miners back to work.”
Mining, he said, is “doable,” but must occur in tandem with training former miners for new jobs.
Short pointed to the work he has done in Frankfort, including working to help establish the Marion Branch Industrial Park in Pike County and the promise inherent in the SOAR program.
Short also said he will be prefiling a bill to request that power plants burn Kentucky coal, if it’s available.
However, Blanton blasted the bill, implying it was simply a political move.
“That bill’s been tried before and it has been found by the courts that it is a violation of intra-state commerce, that you can’t force these power companies to buy all their coal from Kentucky,” he said. “It’s a good political move right now to make us look like we’re doing something, but it’s not benefitting us.”
Short also pointed to the expansion of the Mountain Parkway as a tool for economic development, and said he’ll work with parties on both sides of the aisle to help create economic development in the region.
“We have to continue to make the most effort to put financial stability in Eastern Kentucky,” he said.
Blanton said he’s not satisfied with the work which has been done in the region by the current legislators. The rest of the nation, he said, has been pulling out of the recession, while Eastern Kentucky continues to fall.
“Pike County alone, since 2011, when the current representative took office, has lost over 2,767 jobs, at an impact of over $134 million to the economy,” Blanton said. “We’re not going forward. We’re going backwards.”
Both men said they believe it’s important that progress occur in Eastern Kentucky, even if it’s outside their district, as the success of one area means success for another.
The candidates also blasted each other over partisan politics, with Short saying Blanton was “hand-picked” by Gov. Matt Bevin, referring to a proposal to build a nursing home for veterans in Eastern Kentucky, as well as the proposal to pass right-to-work legislation.
“Gov. Bevin handpicked him to run for the 92nd District — why?” Short said. “So he can get his right-to-work legislation through the House, he can make sure the veterans nursing home goes to Bowling Green, he can get anything he wants.”
Blanton said he did speak with Bevin prior to filing.
“Gov. Bevin did not handpick me to run for this office,” he said, but added he did meet with Bevin before running because he wanted to learn Bevin’s values. “In that conversation, I told him specifically, ‘Governor, if you’re looking for a rubber stamp, I am not your man. I do not operate that way.’”
Short said that, if he loses the race, the nursing home project will not come to Eastern Kentucky.
“If I get beat, the veteran’s nursing home is going to go to Bowling Green, no matter if the House flips or not,” he said. “(House Speaker Greg Stumbo) and (Majority Leader) Rocky Adkins will not stand up for Mr. Blanton like they’ll stand up for me.”
Blanton blasted Short’s talk of the nursing home project, saying that there is no evidence that Magoffin County would be the recipient of the project, which Short said Bevin is attempting to get placed in Bowling Green.
“The veterans nursing home has been two years and there’s not even an application on file for Magoffin County to get a nursing home,” he said. “We lost over 3,000 jobs in Eastern Kentucky under their leadership.”
Short said it’s most important that, no matter the party, that all work together for Eastern Kentucky.
“We’re going to try our best to put Eastern Kentucky on the map, but we’ve got to do it with Republicans and Democrats working together,” he said.
Blanton said Short’s voting record shows he is more interested in partisanship.
“There was one vote where he differed from Greg Stumbo in the last session,” Blanton said. “Is that being non-partisan and reaching across the aisle for help? I don’t think so. That’s voting right along party lines. That’s what we’ve got to stop.”
The state’s issues with public employees’ pension plans were also a topic of discussion Tuesday.
Short said the issue is a difficult one.
“We’ve got to find new avenues to fund retirement,” he said. “It’s hard to even answer the question.”
One area he suggested to help stanch the bleeding in the pension plans is through taxing corporations.
“We could tax the corporations to let them start paying into the cost-share program,” he said. “We don’t need to take it off the working man’s back. We need to take it off the corporations that’s making billions of dollars. People around here are just barely getting by.”
However, Blanton said he disagrees with forcing private industry to pay for a problem created by legislators over several decades.
“They’ve took money out of our retirement systems,” he said. “They’ve not paid the requirements that was supposed to be put into our retirement systems. We can’t put that on the back of private industry. That goes on the back of the legislators. They’ve created the problem.”
Short later shot back that the issues such as corporations not wanting to pay enough taxes is part of the reason that political action committees, such as Americans for Prosperity, are involved in state House races.
“All that is is billionaires wanting to come into Kentucky, flip the House, push right-to-work legislation, that way all the union jobs are gone,” he said. “We need to let them start paying their fair share of taxes.”
Currently, Short said, the state’s retirement plans are 17 percent funded. However, Blanton took issue with the failed plans proposed by House leadership during the last session.
“They wanted to borrow $3 million and invest it in the stock market and trust the stock market to make enough to put back into our retirement systems, plus make the money to pay off the interest on that loan,” he said. “That’s not smart.”
Also, Blanton took issue with Short’s mention of the 17 percent rate at which the pension plans are funded.
“He don’t tell you that the legislators’ retirement system is 100 percent funded — 100 percent funded while the rest of them are almost bankrupt,” he said.
Blanton said he will co-sponsor legislation which would allow legislators to opt out of the legislative retirement system and that he will opt out if it’s allowed.
Short also said it’s important that the state focus its spending plans on preventing cuts to schools and similar organizations.
“Don’t take from the kids, don’t take from the old people,” he said. “We need to fund senior citizens programs, we don’t need to cut education.”
Both candidates were asked which presidential candidate — Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton — for which they’ll be voting in the general election next month.
Blanton said he’s supporting Republican candidate Donald Trump, but referred to Trump as the lesser of two evils, saying he disagrees with many personality traits of the candidate.
“Is Donald Trump a saint? No, he isn’t,” he said. “But he’s the only that says he’s going to bring our coal industry back.”
Also, Blanton said, Trump will also stand against free trade agreements and against abortion.
Short was non-committal on the presidential race, saying he’s instead focused on his own race.
“I’m not going to say who I’m going to vote for,” he said. “I’m here for the people of the 92nd District,I have to run every two years. I can’t get involved in other races. I’m not going to endorse either candidate. I’m going to endorse John Short.”
However, he jokingly said he would vote for 31st Dist. state Sen. Ray S. Jones II for president.
Appalachian News-Express Photos || RUSS CASSADY